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Can anyone conquer Canelo?

Canelo Alvarez
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom
Elliot Worsell gathers evidence from experts regarding the size of the task facing Billy Joe Saunders against Canelo Alvarez

THERE can’t be many more pointless how-to guides than the How to Beat Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez guide Floyd Mayweather authored and published in September 2013. That book, though read widely, appears as gobbledygook to most who attempt to follow it and has long been in need of both translation and a reprint.

The truth is, no matter how much time is spent studying it, nobody can understand it and nobody can put its lessons into practice. Moreover, nobody can become Floyd Mayweather and nobody is likely to confuse the Canelo Alvarez defeated by Mayweather in 2013 with the Canelo Alvarez wreaking havoc today.

Now, in fact, with Mayweather retired (kind of), it is Alvarez who runs boxing, it is Alvarez who presents boxing’s biggest conundrum, and it is Alvarez who operates with the backing of the entire establishment behind him. Busier than ever, Alvarez makes obscene amounts of money each time he fights, regardless of the opposition, and has recently had an easy time of it with both Callum Smith, considered a threat, and Avni Yildirim, considered a delayed Christmas gift.

Next, he lets Billy Joe Saunders, the WBO super-middleweight champion, have his chance on May 8, and the world duly waits for the inevitable. They wait for Saunders to try and fail. They wait for Canelo to solve yet another style and make it look unnervingly simple in the process. They wait for Canelo to collect another belt.

In terms of weapons, style is perhaps Saunders’ greatest. Slick, unpredictable, and calm under fire, he boasts the mentality and ring intelligence – emphasis on ring – to give fighters boasting superior power and athletic gifts problems. But he is also flattered by his level of opposition and has of course never shared a ring with a fighter anywhere near as good as Canelo Alvarez.

One man who has experienced what it’s like to face Canelo Alvarez is Ryan Rhodes. Their fight may have happened some 10 years ago but remains relevant for the simple fact that the Sheffield man’s unorthodox, fleet-footed style is arguably the closest thing to Saunders Alvarez has so far encountered in his 15-year professional career. (Saunders even spent a period training at Sheffield’s Wincobank gym, Rhodes’ former home, under the watchful eye of Dominic Ingle in an effort to make his elusive style somehow even more slippery.) Rhodes ultimately succumbed to Alvarez in the 12th round, having been gradually slowed down, but took plenty from the experience and admits to being surprised by the style Alvarez employed on fight night.

“After seeing the Matthew Hatton fight, Canelo’s previous fight, I thought, If he fights me like that I’m going to love it,” Rhodes said. “Because in that fight he just pressed forward all night long. It was pressure, pressure, pressure.

“But he didn’t do that against me. He changed his style. He tried to be the counterpuncher and we really weren’t expecting that. In the fights of his we had seen he came forward with aggression and was your typical Mexican fighter. But he wasn’t like that against me. He boxed a little bit on the back foot and counterpunched. That’s what makes him such an amazing fighter. He can box, he can fight, and he can counterpunch. He has great movement and great reflexes. He’s got it all.”

It wasn’t just his style adjustment that caught Rhodes by surprise. Canelo’s attitude, too, had undergone a major adjustment between his fights against his first British opponent and his second one.

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“We got told that for that fight it was the first time he had gone to Big Bear to train and that he was sparring Triple G [Gennady Golovkin],” said Rhodes. “I would have loved to have fought him around the time he boxed Matthew Hatton. We heard rumours that he was a bit of a ‘Jack the Lad’ and playboy around that time and was also seeing Miss Mexico. I just hoped he was taking his eye off the ball but that never turned out to be the case against me.”

Since beating Rhodes, Canelo, 55-1-2 (37), has gone from strength to strength, winning 18 fights, drawing one (against Golovkin), and losing only against the imperious Floyd Mayweather. As well as his enviable skillset, opponents must now also deal with his air of invincibility and the power of not only his fists but the promotional machine behind him.

Rhodes, understandably, is relieved to have crossed paths with him when he did. “When I boxed Canelo, he was 20 or 21 years old and wasn’t the superstar he is today,” he said. “If I fought him today, I think there’d be a lot more pressure on me. Social media is bigger now. Everybody was talking about the potential of him when I fought him but Canelo has reached that potential now and a lot more people know about him.”

The last British opponent to face Canelo, and deal with this pressure, was Liverpool’s Callum Smith, a fighter undefeated at the time who brought to the table the WBA super-middleweight title. Smith was pitched as a competitive opponent ahead of the fight, someone big and talented enough to give Alvarez issues, yet was dominated throughout the 12 rounds they shared, much to the frustration of his coach, Joe Gallagher, who had a bad feeling about the fight the moment it was made.

“I’ve not watched the fight back yet because that whole experience is still a very bitter one for me,” Gallagher said. “I feel Callum was set up. There are higher powers in this sport playing chess and in this case they got what they wanted. They gave Callum the shortest notice and they gave him less money than he would have got with a crowd. Job done. Now Callum’s delivered his belt for Canelo and he’s delivered an opportunity for Billy Joe as well. That has left me feeling really bitter about the whole thing. Callum should have said, ‘No, I’m not fighting him.’

“He spent only about two weeks sparring for that fight and it wasn’t enough. I said to him after his last sparring session, ‘You’re getting better and better but your timing’s still out. You need another two or three weeks to get your timing.’

“How do you get quality sparring in lockdown, though? You can’t fly them in. You can’t put them up in hotels. So, all that stuff made Canelo look better because Callum Smith wasn’t at his best.

“It was the worst possible time for Callum to fight Canelo. I did say to Callum, ‘Tell them we’ll put it back. We’ll do it at the end of January or February.’ They then came back and said, ‘No, it has to be now because Canelo’s getting married in February.’ That’s the bulls**t they came back with. But we’ve not seen Canelo married yet.

“You have to look at the bigger picture. They were going to deliver him [Avni] Yildirim in February, and then Billy Joe in May. That was always the big picture for them. He was never getting married. That was just b****cks they told Callum to have him experience the fear of missing out. They basically said, ‘Do it now or you’ll never get it.’”

Smith decided to go for it and he got it. He got the payday, a smaller one than his coach would have liked, and he got a taste of what makes Canelo Alvarez such a daunting prospect for every boxer between middleweight and light-heavyweight.

Gallagher, too, received additional insight into what makes the four-weight world champion so special. He had been there before, of course, crouching in the away corner with Canelo performing in the ring, but this time noticed elements of Canelo’s game he had not detected during his dismantling of Smith’s older brother, Liam, in September 2016.

“Canelo has obviously matured, he’s fought a lot of people since beating Liam Smith, and he’s got that experience now,” Gallagher said. “He’s seen every style at this point. He’s going through the divisions and the fighters like a knife through butter. He throws stuff very well but what he does is he makes you do stuff you don’t want to do. He cuts the ring off well and he makes you feel like he is in control at all times and is reading everything you are about to do.

“Liam put it on him and had success at times doing that. But is Billy Joe willing to go on the front foot with Canelo? We’ve all seen that Canelo’s timing is impeccable. Amir Khan was a few rounds up against him [in 2016] and the timing of Canelo’s right hand over the top soon put an end to that. There is always a sense that sooner or later he will get to you. Billy Joe keeping [David] Lemieux off is a bit different from Billy Joe keeping Canelo off. Canelo is quite nifty on his feet, he’ll cut that ring down, and it’s up to Billy Joe to get out of the way and remain a moving target.”

Canelo Alvarez
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

Whether he can achieve this is anyone’s guess, but we can say with a greater degree of certainty that the jump in class Billy Joe Saunders will experience on May 8 will come as a shock to him. With no world-class victories to his name, he will be bypassing fights against fellow world champions – and even top contenders – to go hurtling headfirst towards a fight against arguably the finest pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. Added to this, Saunders, 30-0 (14), has very little momentum going for him and has sadly caused more excitement – read: controversy – on social media than he has in a boxing ring of late.

The last opponent to face Saunders, in fact, was St Helens’ Martin Murray, a 38-year-old whose best days were behind him and whose best days occurred in the middleweight division.

“I rated Billy Joe,” said Murray. “But it’s hard to judge Billy Joe because I never fought him in my prime. When I fought [Sergio] Martinez [in 2013], it was pretty much like Billy Joe and me in a way. Martinez was the older guy and I was the younger guy with the gears coming through. I noticed that when I fought Billy Joe I didn’t have the gears. The gears had gone.

“Do I rate him? Yeah. Was it a fight too late for me? Yeah, it was. Do I think I would have beaten him a few years ago? Yeah, I do.

“If I was going to rate him, in terms of my opponents, I’d go Golovkin, Martinez, [Felix] Sturm, and then the rest. Golovkin is way ahead of the rest, though. He was just on another level. He was elite. That is exactly what I think Canelo is as well: elite. And that is why I can’t see Billy Joe beating him, as much as I’d love him to.

“I think the best chance we had of anybody beating Canelo at 168lbs [super-middleweight]was Callum Smith and Callum didn’t do the job. I’m not saying Billy Joe can’t do it, and I hope he does, but it’s a massive ask.”

The task is an insurmountable one in the mind of Ryan Rhodes as well. He can see Saunders’ style giving Canelo problems early, and this perhaps being enough to win a three-round amateur bout, but feels Canelo’s relentless aggression will see him take over in the second half of any pro fight.

Rhodes does, however, question Canelo’s recent activity and wonders whether he will be quite so relentless on May 8.

“He’s going to be having three fights within five months,” said Rhodes. “The issue I have with that is not the three fights in five months but all the back-to-back training camps that go with it. He won’t have had easy sparring in these camps and he could be burnt out.

“Let’s be honest, the fights have been pretty easy. Even the Callum Smith fight was an easy fight for him. But the sparring he’s doing for these fights could take something out of him. His camps will have been tougher than the fights and my worry for Canelo is that this third fight against Billy Joe will be one too many and he could have left it all in the gym. He won’t have had much time off between fights and that is not good for a fighter. These back-to-back training camps could work in Billy Joe’s favour if he can start confidently and build up a lead.”
Gallagher, having tried not once but twice, is perhaps the least optimistic man in the room when it comes to rating Saunders’ chances against Alvarez.

“If you look at the records, it looks an easy fight for Canelo,” he said. “If you look at the opponents Canelo has been in with, you see world champions, class fighters, and you look at Billy Joe’s resume and don’t see a lot there. You’ve got a David Lemieux win a few years ago, a Chris Eubank Jnr split-decision, and a points win against Andy Lee. He has beaten contenders but no real elite fighters.

“He’s also been winning these fights on points, not knocking them over. This Billy Joe that we’re talking about, does he have the power to beat Canelo? Does he hit hard enough to stop him coming after him? I think Canelo will just hunt him down.

“It’s very much a [Marvin] Hagler-[Ray] Leonard type of fight. But Canelo is a lot smarter than Hagler in terms of his ability to cut the ring down and Billy Joe is probably not as good at keeping his distance as ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard. We’ll see. But sooner or later Canelo is going to land something big and Billy Joe will have to react. The problem is, at 168, he hasn’t been in with anyone decent and he hasn’t been tested.”

Canelo Alvarez
Hogan Photos

On a more positive note, Gallagher does believe there is a way to get to Alvarez and a way to unsettle him and a way to ultimately beat him. He has seen more of Alvarez than most and feels he knows enough by now to strike third time lucky – with the right preparation and avatar, of course.

“In my opinion, the best thing to do with Canelo is go out and put it on him from minute one,” he said. “You have to push him back and make him fight. You know you’ll get hit but you’ve got to risk that to let Canelo know he’s going to be getting hit as well. Canelo likes to, if you notice, take his time, take his time, and then come.

“If he doesn’t think you’ve got much of a chin, he’s a fast starter and he’ll come out of the blocks and put it on you.

“To beat him, you’re going to have to fight him like Triple G did the first time but also knock him out. You have to take it to him and when he rests, you go again. Canelo likes to go for rests and go on the back foot. He then walks in but he’s half kidding you. He wants to rest. That’s when you have to go after him and put it on him.”

The scary thought for Billy Joe Saunders, and indeed most Canelo Alvarez opponents, is that the imaginary fighter Joe Gallagher describes is essentially one the Mexican has already met and conquered, albeit in controversial circumstances. It is, rest assured, certainly not Callum Smith, certainly not Billy Joe Saunders, and the game plan outlined, the one designed for this faceless and nameless fighter, is certainly not as easy to execute as Gallagher makes it sound.

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